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Newsletter 12

Elephant Trust

Londolozi    Pic: JV

I see that the minister of environment of South Africa, has lifted the moratorium on culling of elephant.

Like most people, I admire elephant greatly, although I know very little about them. In my pursuit of cats and while building Londolozi, I have had some unique and rare experiences with elephants which I would like to share with you.

In Kenya's Tsavo National Park, with the late Bill Woodley, the warden of the park, I had the privilege of flying over a herd of 1 500 elephants.

Londolozi    Pic: Sunette

Indeed, as Woodley buzzed the herd in his small plane, the dust was so thick from the fleeing herd, that Woodley was forced to take the plane up higher to safety. The scene is still vividly imprinted in my memory.

Bill Woodley told me that the fact that 1 500 elephants were congregated together, meant they were being heavily poached. He explained to me that Tsavo had once been a thick Comiphira woodland (when they first arrived, they had to cut their way into Tsavo), now it was an open grassland.

The off take of trees by the elephants, had caused Tsavo to become more of an open grassland. The water table had lifted and fountains had begun to flow. Animals that thrived in the grasslands had increased. There were many advantages to the change. In short, Bill Woodley had had the rare privilege of seeing a natural cycle of nature moving from woodland to grassland, somewhat speeded up by the big numbers of elephants, in the space of his lifetime.

Londolozi    Pic: JV

Scientists had claimed that the Black Rhino was lost to Tsavo because of the habitat destruction caused by the elephants. They argued that the elephants should have been culled before this was allowed to happen.

Bill Woodley refuted this, he said the Black Rhino disappeared to poachers, not to habitat destruction. He conceded the opening of the bush assisted the poachers in locating the rhino. Finally, nature took her own course and large numbers of elephants died in the drought.

In contrast to the Tsavo example, I had the opportunity of observing the intense management system of Kruger National Park employed during the 1970's and 1980's

Londolozi    Pic: Sunette

Londolozi is situated in the Sabi Sand Private Game Reserve, which lies on the south western side of Kruger National Park. Sabi Sand is a small reserve of approximately 55 000 hectares. When we started Londolozi is 1973, the Sabi Sand had only 5 elephant bulls. Between the Sabi Sand was a Vetinary wire fence which divided Kruger Park from the private game reserves. This restricted the natural movement of elephants herds.

The situation was ironic. At Londolozi, we were clearing the bush with bulldozers to create open grasslands to try to save grazer species like blue wildebeest and next door in Kruger Park, they were culling elephants, an animal which could naturally create grasslands as they had done in Tsavo.

We did two things. Firstly, we campaigned heavily for the removal of the vetinary fence so that the elephants could move freely between Kruger National Park and Londolozi. This was achieved in the nineties due to the vision of the then Director of National Parks, Dr Robbie Robinson. In the early eighties we purchased 60 elephants from Kruger National Park and translocated them to Londolozi.

The operation was a success and the Sabi Sand had for the first time breeding herds of elephant.

Today with the fence gone and the elephants increasing, in excess of a thousand elephants can be seen in the Sabi Sand / Londolozi area, mostly in the dry season. Every elephant expert and scientist has an opinion on what should be done. I don't pretend to have any answers, but I make the following observations.

Under the elephant management policy during the eighties and nineties, the Kruger National Park maintained their elephants at around 7000. Every year the surplus was culled. This was after intense aerial counts were done to determine the numbers.

The Kruger Park was divided into sections and a certain number were culled from each section. Often the section ranger, with the assistance of the ground crew, did the culling which involved shooting the elephants with a dart loaded with a chemical called scolein. This caused the respiratory system in the injected elephant to stop functioning and death occurred within a few minutes. The culling was conducted over 9 months of the year (the cooler months) by highly trained individuals with the best and state of the art equipment at their disposal. The size of Kruger allowed them to cull elephants far away from tourist camps and roads.

The helicopter pilots employed by Kruger Park were air force trained and the finest in the land. Literally hundreds of hours were flown without a serious accident.

As the culling operation moved into a section, the area was heavily impacted by helicopters, trucks, front end loaders and people. Then the operation moved on to the next section, giving the elephants respite until the next year when the culling operation returned.

It's important to understand that a culling operation is not the same as a captive operation. Once an elephant is dead, the carcass has to be butchered. Meat, skin, ivory, all have to be preserved. The Kruger Park built an abattoir to accommodate the culled elephants.

Live caught elephants are very different. Each elephant needs its own crate. Despite what they say, larger elephants are more difficult to handle. For this reason, large cows are often cut away and the smaller elephants are captured. This means traumatized cows are left behind and traumatized young elephants are separated from their mothers.

Less elephants can be caught than can be culled and therefore to remove elephants, more captures and more impact will result.

While anyone would prefer capture to culling, the outcome could be very different.

The executive committee of the Sabi Sand (55 000 hectares) have decided to catch 500 elephants and donate them to neighboring African countries.

I applaud the creative thinking, even though some of the African countries involved, do not have a good track record in protecting their elephants.

Londolozi    Pic: JV

However, Sabi Sand is small. It has numerous tourist camps in close proximity to each other. At any one time, more than 60 open landrovers, each with overseas tourists in them, are criss crossing the land. Many of these people are wealthy high profile people. The Sabi Sand does not have the luxury of vast open sections of land as is found in Kruger Park. Indeed, one section in Kruger may be bigger that the entire Sabi Sand.

More than 30 capture operations in Sabi Sand will have to be carried out by the private enterprise to catch 500 elephants. They have neither the expertise nor the equipment or the safety record that Kruger National Park had.

The private enterprise is profit driven, they will not have the luxury of operating at a steady pace like Kruger Park could do, moving from section to section. The helicopter pilots are commercial, often flying many hours a month. They have nowhere near the experience of Kruger Parks original pilots.

Helicopters are by their very nature dangerous machines and the private enterprise's track record for accidents is high.

But it is perhaps the trust between man and elephant which will quickly be totally destroyed.

I worked in Kenya's Masai Mara for 17 years and filmed many elephants with wire snares on their trunks and feet. I saw enraged elephants attack and kill Masai herdsmen.

I filmed in Zambia's Luangwa Valley for 14 years. Luangwa once supported 100 000 elephants. At Shingalana camp, few elephants if any had any tusks at all. The elephants with tusks had been poached.

One day I was chased by a tuskless female for two kilometers before I found a suitable tree to climb. I vividly remember the hatred in the elephant cow's eyes as she circled the tree trying to get me.

Helicopter pilots in Kruger National Park told stories of how cow elephants had lured the helicopter down and then tried to smash the helicopter by using a tree. Another cow who had lost her calf, got her trunk onto the skid of the helicopter and tried to pull it out of the sky.

Londolozi    Pic: Sunette

I remember watching two elephant cows standing shoulder to shoulder with a darted calf in an attempt to keep the calf upright and then extracting water from their stomachs and spraying it over the calf in an attempt to revive it.

These are highly intelligent animals using everything they can to ensure their survival against the technological advantages at the disposal of the human beings. Understandably, they have extreme hatred for human beings.

It is more than 25 years after we first introduced breeding herds of elephant into Londolozi and today, one can sit quietly in an open landrover and cow elephants with young calves will graze and browse within a few feet of you.

A unique partnership with the worlds largest mammal has been formed and it has taken a long time.

It goes something like this:

I have land and plenty of bush to share with you. I have built many large dams for you to drink and to swim in. I have removed the wire snares which can injure you. I have not hunted you for trophies. I have not captured you and separated you from your family.

You have responded with trust. You have not smashed up aeroplanes worth millions of rands standing on the runway. You have not attacked the people in open landrovers and turned the landrovers over.

This unique partnership of trust is in for a rude awakening and the human beings who implement this decision to capture 500 elephants in a small area called Sabi Sand, are in for a  bigger awakening. It could be a disaster for humans and elephants.

Ironically, after 25 years of increasing elephants, I am still using a bulldozer to clear the bush to try to save the grazers. In short, the elephants have not done it for me.

Like Tsavo, rivers at Londolozi have begun to flow where elephants have killed trees in the catchments.

Yes marula trees and knobthorn's have been killed by elephants at Londolozi and yes, many young marulas and knobthorns are surviving and thriving. Many of these germinated in elephant dung.

The only constant in life is change and yes, the elephants are changing the habitat, but like the Tsavo situation, that change can sometimes be for the better.

Light and peace


Tread lightly on the Earth

Copyright 2007 @jvbigcats  All rights reserved

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